Quantitative analysis

Two reviews that I recently read got me thinking about how you can use quantitative analysis in reviewing literature.

The first is a review of a book titled Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt. The book apparently presents the results of studying word frequency in a range of authors, but from Matthew Walther’s review it seems like Blatt did hardly anything remotely useful with his numbers:

“Sure, Joseph Conrad wrote three times as much about men than [sic] women, but he wrote more than 100 years ago.” True. He also wrote about the sea and the colonial ivory trade…. No doubt one could employ statistical analysis in the hope of discovering why, for example, the word “suddenly” occurs far more often in The Lord of the Rings than it does in Pride and Prejudice. One could also note, on the basis of nothing more than having seen the respective film versions, that one is a sword and sorcery epic in which goblins and wizards and maidens fair are always popping up out of nowhere, while the other is a comedy of manners whose action scenes tend not to rise above the “Her ladyship was highly incensed” level of tension.

Even though this kind of thing seems like overall it would be a terrible approach, I want to give you a counter-example in this (very long) review of a collection of NYT movie critic Pauline Kael’s columns. You have to read the whole thing to see what I mean, because it’s chock-full of extended quotations and selections, but it works because it is a thorough and ABSOLUTELY DEVASTATING demonstration of “the repertory of devices of which Ms. Kael’s writing now, almost wall to wall, consists.” If you’re going to talk about someone’s favorite words, do it like this.

What a Physicist Sees When She Looks at a Fancy Gown

Because I have friends who are interested in fashion, I get a sort of secondhand interest myself. I’m actually fascinated by men’s fashion, because it’s all about infinitesimal variations within fairly narrow perameters: how much of a break do you give your trousers? How wide are your lapels? How wide is your tie and what kind of knot do you use? Women’s fashion is much much more wide-ranging. If you needed proof, just remind yourself that Barack Obama wore the same tux for his entire presidency, while Michelle wore a tremendous variety of dresses. I don’t think it’s really worth complaining about (I mean, POTUS has way more on his plate than FLOTUS, so I’m very cool with giving him one less decision to make), but there’s no denying the difference.

All that is a preamble to this article, which discusses the ways that physics and structural engineering come into play in constructing haute coture gowns.

Think of it this way: Engineering is classically a field of bridges, buildings, ball bearings, and machines. But it’s also fundamental in transforming flat sheets of fabric, piles of feathers, and strings of beads into gorgeous gowns. Material science, geometry, kinematics, strength, structure, and cloth dynamics are all essential theory for successful fashion design.

It’s an article based on this twitter thread which came out immediately after the Met Gala.

The thread and the article are both worth 5-10 minutes of your day. Enjoy!

Throwing stuff against a wall

I was talking to my friend Ashley† the other day and lamenting the fact that this space doesn’t have an identity of its own.

This post will not change that.

Mostly right now I’m lining up a bunch of stuff, throwing it against the wall, and seeing what (if anything) sticks. If you see something you like, would you say so? Maybe say what you like about it? Thanks in advance!

And now to the little item I *actually* wanted to post today.

Here’s a tidbit in the “make the world a more informed place” category: have you ever considered that other people have different experiences with bathroom scales than you do? I don’t mean the obvious “some people have eating disorders and scales might trigger their impulses where a scale is just an appliance for me” kind of different experience. What I mean is that some people can know that they have lost a single pound and other people can’t. For real. I can’t be sure I’ve lost weight until the change is in the 4-5lb range, which astonishes my friends who can tell me with certainty (as a friend did this afternoon) that they lost 3lbs in the last 5 months. It’s just that my weight fluctuates day to day by a couple of pounds, so even if a pound is temporarily missing I don’t feel like saying that it’s really lost. Most of the time my “lost” pounds come back so fast that it’s hardly like they even left—they’re not even gone long enough to qualify for a missing persons report. Of course, I don’t count weight gain until it’s 4-5lbs, either, because sometimes I pick up stray pounds for a couple days as they pass through town. But once 5 of them have formed a gang, they stick together whether coming or going.

No grand point to make here. I just found it interesting and wanted to share. Cheers!

† Of the previously-mentioned fabulous fashion-adventure blog “The Art of Getting Dressed”, home of the #AshleyTries series (A++, highly recommended, I read it every week).


Football and baseball are America’s two Homeric sports (one about the clash of armies with heroic leaders who perform feats of daring, the other about individual men journeying out to islands, encountering others, and struggling to return home). But, let’s face it, football is better on television than baseball is. The ball moves one direction at a time, generally speaking. There’s lots of hitting. There are lots of breaks where *really* nothing is happening, so you can cut away to a commercial (you can’t cut to a commercial break while the pitcher winds up, because he might throw any second). Because we had a TV when I was a kid, and because I grew up hundreds of miles from even minor league baseball, I have a birth-allegiance to football.

BUT. I have come to realize over the last decade that my affection for football cannot be without reservations. It’s fairly obvious by now that the men of the NFL who perform for our benefit every Sunday in the fall are very likely killing themselves slowly. It’s not as gory and immediate as Roman gladiatorial combat, and it’s not as bad as it was in the early days when Teddy Roosevelt intervened because so many players were dying on the field, but it’s still deadly in the end. That was brought home to me again when I saw the recent New York Times report on a researcher who had scanned the brains of 111 retirees.

110 of those brains had CTE, which is an enormous number when you consider what that means for the NFL as a whole (emphasis mine):

The set of players posthumously tested by Dr. McKee is far from a random sample of N.F.L. retirees. “There’s a tremendous selection bias,” she has cautioned, noting that many families have donated brains specifically because the former player showed symptoms of C.T.E.

But 110 positives remain significant scientific evidence of an N.F.L. player’s risk of developing C.T.E., which can be diagnosed only after death. About 1,300 former players have died since the B.U. group began examining brains. So even if every one of the other 1,200 players would have tested negative — which even the heartiest skeptics would agree could not possibly be the case — the minimum C.T.E. prevalence would be close to 9 percent, vastly higher than in the general population.

And despite the awful circumstances, we keep watching. I keep watching.

I think a GQ profile of a very young player who had CTE and committed suicide sums up my (ambiguous) feelings on the subject.

We could ban football. (But we love football.) We could allow people to play football only once they turn 18, which is what Omalu has proposed. (And what happens when 18-year-old athletic phenoms—freight trains who have never learned to tackle properly—are suddenly turned loose on one another? Is that better?) We could take away tackling. (Sorry, no one’s watching the National Flag Football League.) We could build a safer helmet. (Which will only encourage players to use their heads as weapons.) We could have a consistent concussion protocol through all levels of football. (We already do in the NFL. Ask Cam Newton how well it’s working.)

The GQ article raises another really good issue: we can say that NFL players are grown men who have chosen their profession with its associated risks, but the kids who play football aren’t in the same position. And you can’t make it to the NFL unless you start early. Sometimes someone will propose technology as a solution, but “technology” really means “money”, and LOTS of it.

And so I don’t quite know what to do. The World Cup is coming up…maybe I’ll just take up Association Football fandom instead.


Irving Update: Spring 2017

Apologies to all my local friends who have probably heard me talk about this enough lately. You can all ignore this… my target audience here is all the friends and family in distant lands.

It’s time for another update from down in IrvingLand! I just finished my second year of graduate school; I got all my papers in (mostly) on time and managed to keep a fairly decent sleep schedule going in the midst of it. That in itself is a very good gift.

I’m in a PhD program, but they allow you to collect a Master’s degree along the way when you’ve met certain requirements. You have to pass X number of credits, demonstrate proficiency in one foreign language, and pass the “comprehensive exam” (a 4-hour essay, followed by a 1-hour defense). I’ve met all those requirements, so I’ll be receiving my MA in Politics at the commencement ceremony on Sunday. I get a hood! I get a diploma! I get to update my CV!

This is not the end of anything. It’s as if you’re running a marathon and they hand out medals at the halfway point: It’s a real medal, and you really did something, but you haven’t yet completed what you actually set out to accomplish. Or flying to Paris: you might have a layover in LaGuardia, which is cool, but that’s not the end point. The end point for me is still a PhD, and I realistically have two more years in Irving before I can torch this banana stand and go write my dissertation. So if you see pictures of me in a cap and gown, don’t get ahead of yourself: I’m sticking in the Dallas area for a while yet. I’m just picking up my half-marathon medal, or ducking out of the airport for a slice of pizza before continuing on across the Atlantic.

I am, actually, taking this a little time off from academics and not enrolling in any summer classes this year. I transferred (along with the whole leadership team from my old location) to a brand new Chick-fil-A which is opening next Thursday, so managing that restaurant will be plenty for me to occupy myself with this summer. A good friend and I coined the term #powerchilling to describe what we’ll be doing when we are not at work. Power Chilling is basically Resting Like You Mean It and Not Feeling Bad About It At All.

Classes I took this past semester:

-Civil Liberties (Constitutional law, focusing on Bill of Rights and 14th amendment issues)

-Graduate Seminar: Tocqueville

-History of Liberal Arts Education (One of the best classes I have ever taken anywhere).

-Hobbes and Rousseau

Important birthdays

I have friends who are approaching their 30th birthdays, and they are somewhat understandably a little apprehensive. 30 is a big number, and it’s a new decade. But to my mind, the more important time is the year after you turn 36. I started thinking about this when a Chick-fil-A owner told me that she’s 36 and doing what she wants to be doing for the rest of her life, right after I found out that Lin-Manuel Miranda was 36 when Hamilton made it big.

Add that to my frederick-law-olmsted-1895most recent discovery: Frederick Law Olmsted was 36 when his plan for Central Park was accepted.

I haven’t seen a lot of Central Park (I always end up in NYC when the weather is mediocre at best), but he also designed the grounds at the Biltmore estate in North Carolina which I visited a few years ago. It’s marvelous – and most of the plan involved re-foresting thousands of acres. When you visit now you would never imagine that the estate was built on a denuded landscape; it feels like the forest has been there forever.

You can read more about Olmsted in this First Things article. The end is mildly devastating.


Maybe it’s just your late 30s: Dante was 37 when he was exiled from Florence. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was 38 when he burst onto the European intellectual scene. TS Eliot was 39 when he converted. Anyway, don’t fear turning 30. Just look forward to whatever happens when you’re 36.

Pieper Paper


I posted this picture, and several people have asked me if they could read the paper for which I was referencing these books. With the caveat that I might have to take it down later because I don’t know what my professional future might hold etc. etc. copyright intellectual property etc. etc., here you are.

Pieper is the star; the paper is focused on how he views the relationship between theology and philosophy. All the other texts were just cited in passing.

Is Christian Philosophy the Best Philosophy?